Tagged: facebook

Student experiences of disability and social networks in Higher Education

My 2011 PhD thesis “Disability 2.0: Student dis/Connections. A study of student experiences of disability and social networks on campus in Higher Education”  is now publicly available via the University of Nottingham’s eTheses repository. The thesis document is an accessible PDF, weighing in at 7.5MB. The fully bibliographic reference is:

  • Lewthwaite, Sarah (2011) Disability 2.0: student dis/connections. A study of student experiences of disability and social networks on campus in higher education. PhD thesis, University of Nottingham. http://etheses.nottingham.ac.uk/2406/

This is the thesis abstract in full:

For many young people, social networks are an essential part of their student experience. Using a Foucauldian perspective, this qualitative study explores the networked experiences of disabled students to examine how dis/ability difference is ascribed and negotiated within social networks. Data comprises 34 internet-enabled interviews with 18 participants from three English universities. Accessible field methods recognise participant preferences and circumstances. Data is analysed using discourse analysis, with an attention to context framed by activity theory.

Disabled students’ networked experiences are found to be complex and diverse. For a proportion, the network shifts the boundaries of disability, creating non-disabled subjectivities. For these students, the network represents the opportunity to mobilise new ways of being, building social capital and mitigating impairment.

Other participants experience the network as punitive and disabling. Disability is socio-technically ascribed by the social networking site and the networked public. Each inducts norms that constitute disability as a visible, deviant and deficit identity. In the highly normative conditions of the network, where every action is open to scrutiny, impairment is subjected to an unequal gaze that produces disabled subjectivities. For some students with unseen impairments, a social experience of disability is inducted for the first time.

As a result, students deploy diverse strategies to retain control and resist deviant status. Self-surveillance, self-discipline and self-advocacy are evoked, each involving numerous social, cognitive and technological tactics for self-determination, including disconnection. I conclude that networks function both as Technologies of the Self and as Technologies of Power. For some disabled students, the network supports ‘normal’ status. For others, it must be resisted as a form of social domination.

Importantly, in each instance, the network propels students towards disciplinary techniques that mask diversity, rendering disability and the possibility of disability invisible. Consequently, disability is both produced and suppressed by the network.

The research was funded by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and completed at the Learning Sciences Research Institute at the University of Nottingham. I am continuing to work in this area, so, as ever, comments are welcome, or get in touch directly. I look forward to hearing from you!

Who is Researching Disability in Facebook?

This is my first post of 2011, I’d really appreciate your thoughts to develop these arguments. Comments, as ever, are welcome!

At New Year I met some new people and began explaining my PhD research into Disability and Social Networks (no doubt more technically and tediously than my audience had hoped). In the following discussion a ‘disability’ vignette came up. A reveller described how a colleague at work was currently out of the office sporadically, due to anxiety. She was signed off work on grounds of stress. However, word had spread around the office that, despite the leaves of absence being taken, this person had posted several upbeat messages on Facebook over weekends, including photos from parties and other social events. Others in the office were beginning to question the reality of her mental health on this basis.

My own research highlights how the boundaries of disability shift in social networks, as disability and ability are ascribed and mediated by peers, tools and the social context. To me, this vignette highlights the complexity of disability and its representation online, alongside some worrying developments in disability-surveillance.

Research into Facebook highlights powerful social norms that are enacted in social media due to context-collapse. Importantly, Facebook in particular, is an upbeat space where users present their ‘best’ self for scrutiny before a mixed audience of friends, family, associates etc; lots of different contexts are collapsed into one. As a result, many people upload their only best (sometimes airbrushed) photos, comment with only their wittiest witticisms and so on. This instigates a powerful norm of ingratiation. In research interviews, the disabled students I spoke to repeatedly stated that Facebook was not a place to publicly express depression or serious mental illness. Indeed, for some, the only signifier of such disabilities in networked publics was silence, a lack of interaction resulting in greater isolation. Such silences may be noticed by attentive friends, however, as we will see, to insurers and employers, it is noise, not silence, that attracts the most attention.

Somehow, Facebook interactions known to be private and frivolous, have become caught up in a legal and corporate project to define how much disability is required to qualify as disabled. In these terms, Facebook is conveniently identified as the inside track, the Truth of what is going on. Within this, any number of assumptions about what constitutes a disability are enacted. More importantly, an underlying concern can be perceived regarding the force with which the boundaries are decided without reflection. I would argue that these moves ‘discipline’ disabled people. In this way, disabled people must perform a strictly defined role. The abilities of a disabled person are rendered suspect: and, according to this view, there is nothing more offensive than a disabled person who is not disabled, or not disabled enough. Within this dichotomy there is no room for grey areas, i.e. the complexity and diversity of impairments that exist in day to day life. Grey areas are difficult; it is much easier to render these issues in cartoonish black and white.

A recently example comes from the Chicago Tribune (also printed in the LA Times).  The Tibune highlight how insurers are looking to Facebook for evidence to challenge claims.

If someone receiving disability benefits for a bad back brags on Facebook or Twitter about finishing a marathon, chances are their insurance company will find out and stop the cheques.

Chicago Tribune

The newspaper leads with an extreme example, the ‘person with a bad back’ signed off work, who then posts to Facebook that they have completed a marathon.  This vignette is offered as the quintessential disability con.  Underneath this headline, however, any number of more complex cases cascade; including the mundane case of the person experiencing anxiety attacks, signed sporadically on and off work and but maintaining a social life. Expressing such a life in Facebook is important – to challenge stigma and resist isolation. However, whilst employers and insurers stalk the network, I’m concerned that users will be forced to choose between performing Normal according to non-disabled network norms OR performing the externally defined role of the Disabled Person. Increasingly, physical or cognitive impairment has nothing to do with it.

Viva Result: Minor Corrections

Great news! On Monday morning I completed my Doctoral Viva – the examination of my PhD thesis “Disability 2.0: Student dis/Connections. A study of student experiences of disability and social networks on campus in Higher Education.” My examiners were accessibility, disability and education expert Prof. Jane Seale (Plymouth University) and identity and methods specialist Dr Kay Hawe (University of Nottingham).

I’m pleased to report that my research exploring students’ experiences of the socio-cultural aspects of disability in social networks has been accepted, and I have been awarded my PhD pending minor corrections. I will complete these corrections over the next three months. Huge thanks go out to everyone involved, especially my supervisors, Dr Charles Crook and Dr Gordon Joyes.

If you would like more information about my research in advance of the publications of the thesis and related documents, please get in touch with me directly via ttxsem@nottingham.ac.uk.